Two years ago I woke early with period type pains.
I was 25+5 weeks pregnant.
I knew something was wrong, but wanted to dismiss it.
The thought of labour at this early stage was very, very scary.
For some reason, I thought the age of viability was 28 weeks. After realising the pains were more significant, more like contractions, I spoke to the maternity assessment unit. They told me to come straight in.
It was a Saturday, so I thought I’d leave dad at home with our 3.5 year old, and drive myself in. I was fully expecting to come home again later the same day. Sadly that wasn’t to be and our daughter was born by emergency section a few hours later.
Having been through an emergency section before with my son, though he wasn’t premature, I knew the drill. I tried to not think about whether or not our baby would survive. I did asked though, and was told she had a good chance. The operating theatre seemed to be jammed packed and noisy. But once it all began things became focused and hushed. The consultant told me my baby was a girl. I asked to see her so they lowered the screen; she looked at me through one opened eye and she looked so beautiful. I didn’t realise how small she was until later.
A tiny baby, far away from home
We were at a level 1 unit, but my new daughter needed to be in a level 3 unit. She was transferred as soon as a space was found, thankfully not too far, but still a two hour drive away. I was transferred the next day and got to saw her later that afternoon.
She was so tiny and hard to make out with all the wires and tubes. The next day I asked on the ward round what I could do to help and they said express milk. I didn’t think I’d have any yet, but after hard work, tears, determination and good support, I was lucky to get a good supply going. It really was the best thing for her and felt so good to be able to DO something. I was expressing far more milk than she was taking, so was able to donate to the milk bank. She luckily had very few problems on her journey through NICU, apart from giving us a big scare on April fool’s day. She was suspected of having Necrotising Enceterocolitis (NEC), but thankfully it didn’t develop. She was on and off antibiotics a lot and up and down with the amount of expressed milk she was taking – it was difficult, but we got there!
Our other difficulty was that I was discharged three days later; we were two hours from home, I didn’t know the area and could barely walk, never mind drive! There was little coordination between the maternity and the neonatal units. I was told there was an on-call room, but that it probably wouldn’t be available for more than two or three nights. Luckily, as it turned out, I managed to have it for the full six weeks of Isla’s stay, and the neonatal unit were brilliant at ensuring this. They also provided me with a daily meal ticket and ward breakfasts and lunches. It wasn’t possible for my son and partner to stay, but we were loaned a flat one weekend and they did day trips once or twice a week. It was very hard being separated, especially for my young son, but it was the only way to manage it. I felt I needed to be there 100% for my baby, so I knew I’d given her everything I could. I generally used the weekends to go home and have a much needed break, but it really is an area of neonatal care that needs improvement, as it’s not uncommon, especially in rural areas for mum and baby to be separated more than they should.
Kangaroo Cuddles and our Extended Family
I soon filled my week days with expressing, sitting by the incubator, and occasionally getting cuddles. The second most important thing, that I would advocate, is Kangaroo care. It has proven benefits for both and mum and baby, once baby is medically stable enough, and it was the best thing for me and Isla. It enabled us to regain some of the pregnancy closeness we’d been robbed of. Most days we would have one or two skin-to-skin cuddles. I have a vivid memory of a very alert tiny baby lying on my chest and looking up at me with the biggest eyes. It was so amazing, at only 30 weeks, and all the other neonatal midwives came to have a look. All the neonatal staff were great and I soon got to know the group of midwives who looked after her, and she was popular with them. Together with the other mums in the expressing room, they became our extended family.
After 6 weeks the day came when Isla was well enough to return to the local unit. From there she continued to make a steady recovery and I was able to have a much better home/hospital balance. I became more involved in her daily cares and once she was out of the incubator, gave her her first bath. The last thing to come was establishing breastfeeding, but that suck, swallow and maintaining breathing action is tricky for little ones!
Isla spent 8 weeks at our local hospital and came home two days before her due date. She was sort of breastfeeding and topped up with bottles and came home off oxygen. She weighed 5lbs and was still tiny, but at least she fitted in the tiny baby clothes range now.
The worry of being at home
Being at home was nerve wracking to start with, and seemed such a huge responsibility. I think you never stop worrying, and we had good aftercare. You somehow need to reclaim your baby and trust your maternal instincts – that comes with time. The thing I was least prepared for was the innocent question of ‘how old is your baby?’ Even now I find myself explaining our story and her two ages. She hasn’t caught up with her corrected age, never mind her actual, and as she reaches the age of two they will stop correcting her age.
She is our beautiful little lady, as she was nicknamed by the neonatal staff, and does amazingly well. She’s crawling and pulling up to standing but not yet walking. It’s a lesson in not comparing to friends babies and measuring her progress from where she started – a 2lb scrap of a thing that fitted into my cupped hands.
She is a delight and such a happy thing. We held a fundraiser for the neonatal units to coincide with the first world prematurity day of her life, and have taken her back to both neonatal units. We are eternally grateful and can never thank them enough for their kind and compassionate care, who together with friends and family, made such a difficult journey bearable.
With special thanks to Beth Nightingale for sharing her story with The Smallest Things.
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